Sri Lanka: War is Over but Tensions Run High

Sri Lanka: War is Over but Tensions Run High

By Sudha Ramachandran

Three years after the Tamil Tiger’s defeat, the underlying issues that caused Sri Lanka’s civil war are once again coming to ahead.

December 13, 2012
The civil war pitted the Tamil militant group, the LTTE (often called the Tamil Tigers), against the Sri Lankan government forces. The conflict was essentially an ethnopolitical struggle that had its roots in the early years of Sri Lanka’s independence when Sinhalese leaders effectively transformed the country into a Sinhala-Buddhist state through a series of laws such as the controversial Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956, which made Sinhala the official language. The excluded Tamil population protested and demanded a government based on federalism where the Tamils in the east and north of the country would enjoy greater autonomy. When these calls went unheeded for decades, some Tamils formed the Tamil Tigers and began taking up arms against the government in 1983.

The 26-year civil war that ensued, which ended with the LTTE’s military defeat in 2009, would come to claim the lives of between 80,000 and 100,000 people, according to the UN. Some non-governmental organizations like the International Crisis Group say the number of deaths was actually much higher.

Since the LTTE’s defeat, Tamils have observed Martyrs’ Day by quietly “lighting lamps inside their homes.” This year, however, “some Jaffna University students decided to perform the rituals on campus,” E Saravanapavan, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Member of Parliament (MP) representing Jaffna district told The Diplomat in a phone interview. According to Saravanapavan, this prompted Sri Lankan security forces to forcibly enter the student’s dormitories to prevent them from lighting lamps for Martyrs’ Day.

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Tensions have always run high in Jaffna peninsula on Martyrs’ Day. Security forces are put on heightened alert in anticipation of an LTTE attack. These forces equate citizens observing Martyrs’ Day as them showing solidarity with the LTTE militant group. For Tamils, however, it is “a day of mourning, not just for dead LTTE combatants but also for the thousands of civilians, including their kin, who were killed in the war,” Saravanapavan says.

With Tamils determined to properly mourn their dead, and security forces equally determined to stamp out any show of support for the LTTE, it is nearly inevitable that Martyrs’ Day will be marked with some degree of confrontation and tension. What made this year’s Martyrs’ Day more complicated was that it coincided with Karthigai Theepam, a festival when Hindus decorate their homes with lamps.

“Many students lit lamps to celebrate Karthigai but were beaten up,” a student of sociology at Jaffna University said. While admitting that he participated in a meeting to observe Martyrs’ Day, he says it was a “peaceful assembly.”

“Why are we not allowed to mourn our dead?” he asks.

The recent unrest is, however, was not just another face-off over Martyrs’ Day. “Tension has been simmering for a while and burst to the fore,” the student said, adding that “Martyrs’ Day simply provided the excuse or the context for the confrontation.”

In the weeks since the showdown, several Tamil youths have been detained on terrorism charges. They include ex-LTTE combatants and students, some of who were arrested for putting up Martyrs’ Day posters.

Successive governments, but particularly the present one led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, have treated the conflict as a “terrorism problem.”  Consequently, their approach has been largely military.

With the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009, the Rajapaksa government has acted as if the conflict is over without addressing the larger issues behind it.

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“It has refused to take meaningful steps to address the political issues underlying the conflict, choosing instead a military-development approach,” observes the Jaffna University student. The militarization of the Northern Province has continued unabated since the war has ended. Budgetary allocations to the military have grown and military bases in the North have continued to expand.

According to The Hindu’s review of a June 2012 internal Sri Lankan military document, 14 of the country’s 19 divisions are stationed in the Northern Province, for a total of between 84,000 and 98,000 troops. Of that number, 3 divisions or between 18,000 and 21,000 troops are stationed in Jaffna alone, according to The Hindu.

The Sri Lankan military is nearly entirely Sinhalese and its brutal operations in the Tamil areas have contributed to it being perceived as an “occupation force.”

Saravanapavan says that the military’s presence in the North has created a pervasive “atmosphere of fear.” People are constantly afraid their family and relatives will be beaten up, arrested, or simply “disappear.”

The military’s presence is everywhere. Colombo administers the Northern Province through a governor who is also a major-general. A March 2012 International Crisis Group (ICG) report drew attention to the military’s domination of the post-war reconstruction effort. With regard to development and humanitarian projects in the North, it is the military that determines “how, where and by whom resources and services are distributed; and who benefits from them,” the ICP report concludes.

Saravanapavan says that the military forces have confiscated hundreds of acres of land from the Tamils in order to build bases. Much of this land is fertile and being used by soldiers to grow crops, he says. Soldiers are running roadside tea shops and food stalls, the Jaffna student pointed out, adding that while their petty businesses are resented by locals, the “more hidden involvement” of the top brass in “big business deals is of greater concern.”

As the ICG report observed:  “The heavy militarization of the [Northern] province, ostensibly designed to protect against the renewal of violent militancy, is in fact deepening the alienation and anger of northern Tamils and threatening sustainable peace.”

Along with the militarization of the north is the ongoing Sinhalization. With the end of the war the land route into the Jaffna peninsula opened and Sinhalese are streaming in from the south and setting up businesses. This is “resented by some Tamils, who feel this is undermining their livelihoods,” Saravanapavan says.

The settling of Sinhalese in the north is inevitably altering the demographics of the province.

There is precedent for this. In the past, the state has sponsored the settlement of Sinhalese in the once dominated Tamil East in order to weaken the Tamil’s clout.

Tamils fear that the government is trying to Sinhalize the north in order to weaken their claims for autonomy and independence. The construction of Buddhist shrines in a place where no Buddhists live — Tamils are mainly Hindu with a sizeable Christian population —  reinforces such fears.

Mullaithivu, which was overwhelmingly Tamil, now has many Sinhalese settlers and could return Sinhalese politicians in the near future,” warns Saravanapavan.

The Rajapaksa government speaks with great pride about the economic initiatives it has put in place in the north. Indeed, the war-ravaged province is desperately in need of infrastructure, jobs and a boost to its economy.

However, much of the “development” has been appropriated by Sinhalese-owned companies or Rajapaksas’s Tamil cronies, according to the Jaffna student. Ordinary Tamils have been excluded from the fruits of the economic development of the north. Infrastructure has improved but roads have been prioritized to facilitate the movement of the military, he points out.

For Tamils in the north, who have borne the brunt of the decades of civil war, the war’s end initially greeted with overwhelming relief.  It promised a new life that was free from aerial bombardment by the Sri Lankan Air Force and forced conscription by the LTTE.

However, while the civil war is over another phase of terror and violence has taken its place.

The recent unrest in Jaffna is not surprising.  It was waiting to happen.  It is not a minor incident that the Rajapaksa government can brush aside. As the BBC’s Charles Haviland put it, the unrest is the “biggest overtly political disturbances in the north” since the end of the war in May 2009.

Deploying more military or using more force to put down the protests will only fuel Tamil discontent.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is a political analyst based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues. 

Ethnic Triumphalism?

Relief among the Sinhala community since the Sri Lankan civil war ended is understandable. Triumphalism isn’t.

September 06, 2011
Quite understandably, I’ve found during my trip here a palpable sense of relief across the island – especially amongst the dominant Sinhala speaking community.  The easing of their anxieties is wholly reasonable. The civil war, which erupted in 1983, cost the country much blood and treasure.But the majority community’s relief notwithstanding, it has been disturbing to note that little political effort has been expended to promote any serious reconciliation with the minority Tamil community. Thanks to the LTTE’s ruthlessness, ordinary Tamils were also victims of terror. Worse still, they frequently found themselves caught in a most unfortunate vice between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces. Their present hapless and insecure state necessitates that the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa reach out to them and offer some modicum of solace.

Sadly, instead of undertaking any such concerted effort, the regime has engaged in a feckless and callous form of ethnic triumphalism. Worse still, its principal exponents have dismissed the legitimate criticisms of the global community over the harsh tactics that were adopted to end the civil war. Instead, they’ve insisted that the regime has no reason to express any form of contrition, and they have sought to stir up populist sentiment against any possible external censure.

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This strategy may well help the regime garner electoral support amongst the majority community in the short term. However, it also risks alienating the aggrieved minority community and generating resentment and frustration that could affect a whole new generation.

 India and Sri Lanka’s Civil War

India’s relationship with Sri Lanka is complex. Nonetheless, New Delhi could have a role to play in uncovering a difficult past.

By Pratyush
December 29, 2012
Last month the United Nations published a highly critical internal report in which it admitted it didn’t do enough to protect Tamil civilians in the final months of the Sri Lanka civil war. In late 2008, the UN had withdrawn staff from the northern part of the country in anticipation of the Sri Lanka government’s bloody military offensive against the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, more commonly known as Tamil Tigers). Tamil civilians had pleaded with the UN to stay at the time, but the international organization said it was unable to ensure the safety of its staff members. Still, the new report raises real questions about the international community’s response during and after the conflict.A UN report from last year, however, issued a damning indictment of the Sri Lankan government’s actions during the conflict, and called on Colombo to “issue a public acknowledgement of its role in and responsibility for extensive civilian casualties in the final stages of the war.” The UN believes that the final offensive alone may have resulted in more than 40,000 deaths. The senseless violence depicted in the UN report is also shown in the documentary, “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,” which details the brutality of the war and suggests some Sri Lankan officials may have been complicit in war crimes.

The international community has strongly condemned the Sri Lankan government for its refusal to allow an international investigation into these alleged war crimes. Along with the criticism offered by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper has threatened to boycott next year’s Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka. There is also a campaign underway in the United Kingdom urging its Prime Minister, David Cameron, to follow Harper’s lead.

As Sri Lanka’s neighbour and the country with the greatest degree of influence on Colombo, India’s support for the Sri Lankan government is perhaps crucial in its ability to rebuke the international community on this issue.

The ethnic and historical links between Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils as well as New Delhi’s own regional influence in South Asia give India an enduring interest in its southern neighbour. An earlier attempt to broker peace between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers ended in disaster when Indian peacekeeping forces that were deployed to implement the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord ended up fighting the LTTE. This was followed by the LTTE’s assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, which prompted India to publicly distance itself from the neighbouring civil war.

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However, according to journalist Nitin Gokhale, author of Sri Lanka: from War to Peacein 2006 India began quietly extending military support to the Sri Lankan government, including the delivery of five Mi-17 helicopters. Gokhale reports that these helicopters played a crucial role in several of the Sri Lankan Air Force’s missions aimed at crushing LTTE resistance.

India’s Sri Lankan policy was undoubtedly driven by its need to retain leverage over Colombo in the face of growing Chinese influence. In recent years, Beijing has made a slew of investments in the island country such as building a port at Hambantota. China has also strongly backed Colombo’s call for non-interference in its internal affairs and is widely believed to have been instrumental in helping to modernize Sri Lanka’s military force which finally allowed it to suppress the LTTE separatist movement.

The Indian government has also offered tactic approval of the government’s 2009 military offensive against the LTTE, despite occasionally calling on Colombo to respect “Tamil rights” and address the deteriorating humanitarian situation.

While it would be too much to ask for New Delhi to institute a panel assessing its own role in the Sri Lankan civil war, at the very least the international community should encourage India to call upon Sri Lanka to recognize the credibility of the 2011 UN report on accountability, and to support an international probe on alleged war crimes that may have occurred in the last few months of the civil war.

Pratyush is a journalist based in New Delhi, India.  His areas of interest include South Asia, the Middle East and China. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics.

Indian interference of the last phase of Sri Lankan war.

Sri Lanka War
Menon states that the combination of Basil, Gota and Mahinda made decision-making easy and quick but also that the decisions, once made, were also final and hard to change.

According to Menon, the Rajapaksas did not want the LTTE leaders’ alive and taken prisoner for the purpose of putting them on trial, nor were they willing to accept any form of international mediation or ceasefire that would enable the LTTE leadership to survive to fight another day.

British writer Mark Salter, who authored the book “To End A Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka” states that “Basil Rajapaksa was open to a peaceful Tiger surrender, MR vacillated on it, and Gota was unwaveringly op-posed.”
Salter further recalled that Oslo’s State Secretary Tore Hattrem’s secret meeting with KP in Kuala Lumpur in Feb 2009, happened explicitly with Basil’s approval and consent.”

Menon’s chapter on India’s response to the last months of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war also exposes the fact that Sri Lanka spent a staggering USD 200 billion on the war between 1980 and 2009.

During the war’s final stages the Indian Government, which was under pressure from the Tamil Nadu factor (2009 elections), was in constant touch with the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa via a troika (According to ex NSA M. K. Narayanan, the troika was a unique experiment that brought Sri Lankan – Indian relations to a new high.)
On the Indian side, the troika consisted of Narayanan, Defence Secretary Vijay Singh and Foreign Secretary Menon while on the Sri Lankan side it was Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Lalith Weeratunga and President Rajapaksa’s political right hand, his brother Basil Rajapaksa.

Menon states that the combination of Basil, Gota and Mahinda made decision-making easy and quick but also that the decisions, once made, were also final and hard to change.

Menon was a regular visitor to Sri Lanka in the first five months of 2009. On one occasion along with Pranab Mukerhee (current Indian President), they met for a military briefing with General Sarath Fonseka and a political one by President Rajapaksa.
There were lengthy conversations exploring various options until we left the place after midnight to fly home on the Indian Air Force jet”, he notes. By mid-January 2009 the Sri Lanka leadership was convinced that the LTTE fighting force had been reduced to a relatively small group, and that victory would be theirs.

Menon describes the Indian conversation with the Sri Lankans. “We concentrated on attempting to save civilians and to prevent attacks on civilians we asked that there be a safe corridor for them to leave the fighting zone and that amnesty is declared.
In addition, it was mentioned that fighter jets should not be used in the conflict to strafe LTTE positions in civilian areas..’ ‘To their credit’, he continues, ‘the Rajapaksas agreed to allow safe passage corridors and to create safe zones for civilians in January and February.

Later in March they also agreed not to use heavy calibre weapons when the LTTE had trapped a large number of civilians in a tiny area along the coast in the final stages of the war. More significantly, the Rajapaksas implemented this commitment in practice’.
The dilemma of Indo-Sri Lanka policy
There were also obvious limits to what India could press for in terms of treatment of the convicted killers of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, some of whom were still wanted by Delhi.

Menon locates the perpetual dilemma of Indo-Sri Lanka policy in the fact that ‘India must engage in order to keep Sri Lanka free of antagonistic outside influences while also trying to prevent the growth of Tamil extremism and separatisms that could eventually affect Tamil Nadu’.
In contrast to Menon’s book, Mark Salter’s volume notes how India did not like Norway coming into play a role as a peace negotiator.

In 2001 “[Erik] Solheim and [Norwegian Ambassador] Westborg flew directly to Delhi for the first meeting with Indian Government representatives. As Solheim recalls: We travelled to Delhi to meet Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh, a foreign policy hotshot who later became Indian Ambassador to Washington. He asked us to sit down and then began a third-degree interrogation, without any pleasantries. ‘Why do you think you can contribute at all in this part of the world?’ he asked. There was no protocol, [it was] like a police interrogation. After an-hour-and-a-half, we left.

Solheim continues, ‘Then we met Jaswant Singh, the BJP leader and Minister of External Affairs. He said, “I have just one question for you: are you patient?”‘ In reply, Solheim ‘admitted that Norwegians are not patient’, contending that they intended to ‘solve this conflict fast’. Singh’s response was blunt: If that’s the case, take the fastest taxi to the airport, get on a plane, and make certain you have a one-way ticket, go back to Europe and stay there. Because if you think this conflict can be solved rapidly you will just complicate matters.”

According to Menon, another important factor was the involvement of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in Sri Lankan affairs from the 1970s onwards.
Menon argues that the choice India made in the light of growing separatist sentiments in Sri Lanka and language riots in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s when the imposition of Hindi was announced had created a fear in Dehli that Tamils would attempt to create an independent territory.

Consequently, from the 1970s onwards RAW was tasked with keeping an eye on the LTTE and other radical Tamil groups: the PLOTE, EROS, TELO, EPRLF and TELA. Menon notes that ‘most accounts say’ that RAW also trained and supported these groups between August 1983 and May 1987, the logic being that a degree of contract and control over them would be useful to further the peaceful evolution of a solution to the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka – hopes that were dashed by the subsequent course of events.

Although Menon’s book captures some salient features of the development of the Eelam concept in Sri Lanka, his sage attempt to save both the Sri Lankan polity and India from being sandwiched between geopolitics and a Tamil issue that is also considered a ‘homegrown’ question for India, is far better projected in the his account of the choices India made over Sri Lanka during the final stages of the war.

His confirmation of Indian assistance during the last phase of the war explains how he and his mission suggested the idea of safe zones for civilians who were trapped in a narrow strip of land during the last months of the war.

2009 January onwards

Menon says that India began to worry at the prospect of widespread civilian casualties when the LTTE fighters progressively squeezed into an even smaller area, while also resorting to their standard tactic of using civilians as human shields.
For Indian policymakers, the priority was to ensure that the least harm possible fell on the civilian population trapped in the midst of war. “This was a moral as well as a political imperative, with Indian general elections coming up in May 2009 and Tamil Nadu the state that had swung the balance in the 2004 election in favour of the ruling UPA”.
Menon speculates that for every Tamil in Sri Lanka there were about 27 Tamils in India, all of whom were emotionally affected by what happened to the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

On 21 January 2009, the SLA declared a 32-km-sq ‘safe zone’ between the A35 highway and the Chalai Lagoon where they stated there would be no firing. Only a trickle of civilians, however, was able to enter the zone. The LTTE prevented them from entering and the ‘no fire’ commitment was broken when the SLA suspected the LTTE of entering the zone. Instead, civilians fled and were pushed into a narrow strip between Nanthikadal and the Indian Ocean. On 12 Feb 2009, the SLA declared a new safe zone, 10-sq-km northwest of Mullaitivu, but Sri Lankan Air Force attacks on the zone continued.

Norway and the United States were attempting to secure a cease-fire, to negotiate exile for Prabhakaran and to explore other exist strategies that would effectively keep the LTTE alive to fight another, politically or militarily. For politicians and leaders in India whether Tamil Nadu or in Delhi, this was not an acceptable stance or outcome. Political leaders, actors and the political divide in Tamil Nadu knew that the only way Prabhakaran could lead Tamil Eelam would be to physically eliminate the real leaders of the Tamils who were in India just as he had already done to other Tamil leaders in Sri Lanka.

Menon points out that the USA was willing to help Rajapaksa in practice with intelligence and military training, but was constrained to express human rights concerns without letting them rise to the level of affecting his conduct of the war against terrorism.
Menon calculates that if India had stood aside or asked him to desist, in effect, defending the killers of an Indian prime minister, Rajapaksas would have effectively written India out of Sir Lanka for next decade or more sacrificing our maritime and other interests in Sri Lanka and abdicating a geopolitically strategic neighbour to other powers.

By 2009 the LTTE leader had no one to back him or to tell him the truth during the last months of his life. The only person who returned to him during this period was Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP) the arms procurator for the LTTE.
He also notes the best estimate cost spend on this war was USD 200 billion five times Sri Lanka’s GDP in 2009.
Menon recalls that Mahinda Rajapaksa told him that there was no one from the Tamil side that could be engaged with politics saying that the TNA was complicit or indebted to the LTTE and to some most radical elements in the Tamil diaspora. Rajapaksa relied more on EPDP turncoat Tamil militant Douglas Devananda.

Gotabaya had a clear view of Sri Lanka’s interest in Menon notes. He reassured Indian about the nature of Sri Lanka defence relationship with China. Security was Gota’s sole reoccupation which made him sensitive to India’s concern while Mahinda was more compliant with Chinese demands.

He adds that both gave the assurance that India’s security interests would be respected and that there would be no surprises in Sri Lanka’s relations with China
Menon was assured that there would be no permanent Chinese military presence in Sri Lanka, and they would look to India for most of their military training and intelligence needs.
The diplomat also adds that the Sri Lankan civil war is one of those few instances he can think of, in which terrorism was militarily defeated.

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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